STEM CELLS: Funding Ban Criticized At Senate Hearing
Yesterday's Senate hearings to consider whether restrictions on embryonic stem cell research should be lifted saw "unusually emphatic and optimistic" testimony in support of the field from some of the nation's most prominent scientists. Dr. Harold Varmus, director of the National Institutes of Health, said, "It is not too unrealistic to say that this research has the potential to revolutionize the practice of medicine and improve the quality and length of life." He added, "There is almost no realm of medicine that might not be touched" by a potential ability to custom-make any type of cell (Wade, New York Times, 12/3). Testifying before the Senate subcommittee on labor, health and education, Varmus argued that although stem cells "do deserve special ethical consideration ... [they] cannot be considered organisms and cannot be considered embryos." Bioethicist Dr. Arthur Caplan of the University of Pennsylvania, warning that "to restrict the research to the private sector could lead to a corporate stranglehold on the technology and a lack of public review," said, "Not only will progress be slow, it will be hidden."
Test Tube Brain?
In an attempt to persuade legislators to overturn the 1994 ban on federal funding for embryo research -- which includes stem cells although they cannot grow into organisms -- a scientist from Johns Hopkins University unveiled unpublished research in which he had grown human neurons from stem cells. John Gearhart, "who led one of the three teams that reported the isolation of human stem cells last month," said that the newly created cells could be used to treat patients with Parkinson's disease (Weiss, Washington Post, 12/3). Committee member Tom Harkin (D-IA) said, "The potential benefits of this work are really awe-inspiring. I believe it is morally wrong for us to prevent our world-class scientists from building on these developments." Committee Chair Arlen Specter (R-PA), while supporting a "reconsideration of the funding ban," predicted that policy changes would bring "challenges to ethicists and theologians as well as members of Congress."
Fruit Of Poisoned Tree
The hearing's most vociferous opponent of loosening the funding ban was Richard Doerflinger of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. He said, "The experiments clearly involve the destruction of human embryos which are organisms in order to gain stem cells which are not organisms" (McFarling, Philadelphia Inquirer, 12/3). He added that "scientific progress must not come at the expense of human dignity." Doerflinger allowed that stem cell research might be acceptable if the cells were derived from miscarried or ectopic pregnancies (Times, 12/3). Caplan agreed, noting that "it would be disturbing to create embryos for research purposes" but "less ethically troubling to use embryos that were aborted or destined for disposal." He added that tens of thousands of unused embryos are in storage at fertility clinics across the country (Inquirer, 12/3).